Greta Reading in Marin, Greta on Sirius Radio, and Blog Carnivals!

A couple of announcements, and some blog carnivals!

X erotic treasury
I’m going to be doing a reading tomorrow (Friday), in Marin County. It’s part of Susie Bright’s book tour for her new anthology, “X: The Erotic Treasury.” It’ll be at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., in Corte Madera. This reading will feature Bill Noble, and Susie Bright, and me, with discussion time afterwards. It’s Friday, Feb. 6, at 7pm.

I’m also going to be on the radio! Listeners to Sirius Radio Left, Channel 146 on your Sirius Satellite Radio dial, can hear me being interviewed live on the Mike Feder Show this Saturday. We’ll be talking about religion in the Obama inauguration and other fun topics, and will be taking calls and everything. The show will not be available on podcast (damn them!), so you have to tune in live. I know. It’s like the Dark Ages. The show will air on Saturday Feb. 7, at 5pm Eastern time, 2pm Pacific time, 10pm Greenwich mean time, 7am on Sunday in Tokyo, 146:23:2457 on the Rigel 7 Glognax Zone Clock… oh you get the idea.

Finally, since I’m so far behind on these: blog carnivals!

Carnival of the Godless #109 at Reduce to Common Sense. (And, which I somehow missed, Carnival of the Godless #108, at CyberLizard’s Collection.)

Humanist Symposium #31, at An Apostate’s Chapel.

Carnival of the Liberals #83, at And Doctor Biobrain’s Response Is… (And, since I missed it when it came out, Carnival of the Liberals #82, at Accidental Blogger.)

And Skeptic’s Circle #104, at Space City Skeptics. (And again because I missed it — I know, I’ve been a bad blogger — Skeptic’s Circle #103, at Bug Girl’s Blog.) Happy reading!

Greta Reading in Marin, Greta on Sirius Radio, and Blog Carnivals!

Just Sitting Around Thinking: The Difference Between Philosophy and Theology

It’s been a little while since I’ve formally studied philosophy, so please forgive me if I get some of this wrong (and of course, please correct me).

So if just sitting around thinking about stuff doesn’t count as exploring the world, then what, if anything, is the value of philosophy?

The other day in my blog, I wrote an excoriation of the idea that the question of God’s existence “should require further exploration.” The essence of my excoriation: How, exactly, does this theologian propose that this exploration take place? What research does he propose doing? Does he plan to “explore” this question by doing anything at all other than sitting around in his living room thinking about it?

In response, Paul Crowley made a very fair point:

I think that there are ways in which the study of philosophy can be said to make progress, and in many ways there’s not much more to philosophy than the activities you set out here.

A valid point, and one that deserves to be addressed. Especially since I have philosophers in my family, and to some extent consider myself one (albeit something of the armchair variety). And yes, I do think philosophy is a valid and important practice, one which can yield truth and insight. At least sometimes.

I had to think about this question for a bit, and this is definitely one of my “thinking out loud” pieces. But my initial, probably oversimplified response is this:

I think philosophers do have a responsibility to do more than just sit around and think.

Science art
I think philosophers have a responsibility, among other things, to keep up on the current science, and research in other fields of non- just- thinking- about- stuff investigation, that relates to their field.

If they’re philosophers of epistemology or ethics, they should be keeping up with research in psychology, and sociology, and history. If they’re philosophers of the mind and consciousness, they should be keeping up with research in psychology and biology. Philosophers of language need to stay current in the latest research and current thinking in linguistics. Political philosophers need to stay current in psychology and sociology (as well as history, of course). Etc.

And I think every philosopher, in just about every field of philosophy, needs to be paying attention to neuropsychology. Especially epistemologists, and ethicists, and philosophers of the mind and consciousness. But everybody, really. Aestheticians, logicians, political philosophers, philosophers of language — everybody.


Because I think one of the main differences between philosophy and theology — ideally, anyway — is that philosophy deals with this world. The real world. The one we all live in and share. The one that we — how shall I put this? — know exists. (Or at least, the one that we know exists as well as we know anything.) It often deals with the real world in some rather abstract and arcane ways; it can often seem inaccessible and irrelevant (hell, it can often be inaccessible and irrelevant). But the basic idea is that it’s meant to shed light on reality: human reality, and the reality of the world around us, and the relationship between the two.

Philosophy cares about the real world. And science is the best tool we’ve come up with so far for yielding accurate data and useful working theories about the real world. So philosophy should care about science. At the very least, it should be sure that it’s not flatly contradicting the scientific consensus. And at the very best, it should be staying on top of the science, helping translate it to the layperson, putting it in context, and pointing to possible new fields of exploration and inquiry.

In other words: I think it’s fine that philosophers largely just sit around and think… when what they’re doing is thinking about reality as it’s currently best perceived, informed by the best tools we have for perceiving it.

Which — to bring it back to the main point — is exactly what theologians don’t do.

You can argue that theologians don’t just sit around and think, either: they read, they study. But what do they read and study? Religious texts? Other theologians? History written by people who share their religious beliefs? Look at the theologians cited in my original piece on the weakness of modern theology. Their theologies reveal a blithe ignorance of (a) basic science that contradicts their theology, and (b) the lack of reliable historical support for their view of history. An ignorance that I frankly found shocking.

I’m sure that’s not universal. I’m sure there are theologians who are reasonably well- versed in history and science and such. But again, I have to ask the question I asked yesterday, the question that I and every other atheist I know keeps asking again and again:

Is there anybody at all doing any sort of “exploration” into the field of theology, other than just sitting around thinking about it?

Is there any basic research being done to fuel the theologian’s sedentary musings? Are there even any proposals on the table for how such basic research might be done? Is there any careful and rigorous observation of reality going on here at all? Or is it all simply a thoughtful, extensive, beautifully- worded exegesis on the state of one’s navel?

And on the rare occasions that such reseach is being done — such as the study on the efficacy of medical prayer, showing that prayer not only doesn’t work but can be detrimental — does any of it at all ever come out on the theologians’ side?

Miracle Occurs
Which brings me to another difference between philosophy and theology. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that honest non-theological philosophers don’t cheat in their arguments by inserting “Then a miracle occurs” at a crucial point. They don’t cheat in their arguments by devoting paragraphs, or chapters, or indeed entire books, to justifying why they can legitimately argue for the objective truth of a statement by saying, “I feel it in my heart.”

Structure of scientific revolutions
Reality matters to philosophy… and therefore science matters to philosophy. And I think philosophy matters to science, too. Or sometimes it does. The philosophy of science has been a tremendous force in shaping and improving the scientific method. The idea that a theory has to be falsifiable to be useful; the idea that the scientific community is a culture with cultural biases that need to be acknowledged; the idea that scientists work with assumptions that they hold onto until the evidence against them becomes overwhelming… these come from philosophy. (I once read an old piece by Martin Gardner, a review of Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” seething with righteous outrage at the notion that the practice of science was anything less than perfectly objective and open- minded, and that scientists had any bias at all for old ideas over new ones. Kuhn’s ideas are now not only not particularly controversial — they’ve been folded into the scientific method.)

Yes, the activities of philosophy often don’t amount to much more than sitting around thinking. But — when it’s done right — it involves sitting around thinking about reality. Not just about stuff people have made up, but about the real world we live in. About things that we know, with a fair degree of certainty, to be true… and that we are willing to let go of if they later prove not to be true.

Which makes it very different from theology indeed.

(Note: The exception to this, I think, is the branches of philosophy that are less concerned with reality and more concerned with meaning, how we interpret the world and our experience of it. But (a) I think even those philosophers should probably be staying current with psychology and neuropsychology, and (2) unlike theology, those philosophies don’t pretend to be about external reality while actually just being about the inside of the philosopher’s head.)

Just Sitting Around Thinking: The Difference Between Philosophy and Theology

The "Exploration" of God, or, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Religion?

So how is it that theists propose to discover the truth about God?

When I wrote my piece the other day about the Big Theologians’ Big Questions for Atheists — and how embarrassingly weak they were — there was a bit that I overlooked. And frankly, I’m somewhat disappointed with myself. Yes, it was just one passing phrase in a sea of bad arguments. But it’s a passing phrase that cuts to the heart of one of the most basic problems with religious belief, and I can’t believe I missed it. So I want to make amends for my sin of omission, and talk about it today.

It’s in this question for atheists by philosopher Paul Copan:

Given the commonly recognized and scientifically supported belief that the universe (all matter, energy, space, time) began to exist a finite time ago and that the universe is remarkably finely tuned for life, does this not (strongly) suggest that the universe is ontologically haunted and that this fact should require further exploration, given the metaphysically staggering implications?

Emphasis mine.

“Further exploration.”

Okay. Here is my question.

How, precisely, do you propose to “explore” this issue?

Like I said the other day, I don’t at all concede the “fact” of the supposed fine-tuning of the universe. But even if I did concede that: How do you propose “exploring” the questions of how the universe began and why it seems to be fine-tuned for life? How do you propose “exploring” whether these questions are more or less likely to be answered with God?

When scientists say that they’re going to explore the answer to some question — like, oh, say, how the universe began — they can tell you exactly how they’re going to go about that exploration. Usually in mind- numbingly specific detail. They can tell you what equipment they’re going to use, how they’re going to measure, how large a statistical sampling, what kind of control groups, etc. And they can tell you exactly how someone trying to prove them wrong would go about doing it.

When theologians say that they’re going to explore the answer to some question — like how the universe began — what they generally seem to mean is that they’re going to sit around in their living room thinking about it.

Now. I have absolutely no objections to sitting around in your living room thinking about stuff. Seventy percent or so of what I do for this blog involves sitting around in my living room thinking about stuff. (The other thirty percent mostly involves reading, looking stuff up on the Web, commenting on other blogs, and talking to people. And sometimes taking pictures of my cats.)

But I am under no illusions about what sitting around thinking about stuff ultimately produces. I am under no illusions that sitting around thinking about stuff will somehow result in a universal truth about the nature of reality. I am completely aware of the fact that sitting around thinking about stuff tells me absolutely nothing other than… well, what I think about stuff.

Phantoms in the brain
And even I base my living- room noodlings on stuff that other people have gone out and explored. Evolutionary biology. Neuropsychology. Astronomy. Physics. Explorations that Copan and other theologians seem depressingly unaware of… especially since they shed important light on their most central arguments.

Sitting around thinking about stuff is important. It’s useful. It’s how we see problems in other people’s ideas and theories. It’s how we come up with new ideas and theories to test. But it is not “exploring” anything except the insides of our own heads.

This is the question I keep asking: If religious belief is a real perception of an entity that really exists, then why, in the centuries and millennia that we’ve been “perceiving” that entity, has our understanding of it not improved? Why do religious believers around the world still have such radically differing “perceptions” about God? Why is it that they have no shred of consensus about God… or even any method for arriving at a consensus about God?

And this is a point Ingrid keeps making: Everything that religion has to offer just comes from people. There’s no data, no hard evidence. It’s all just books people wrote, speculations people have come up with, opinions people have passed down. It’s all just stuff people made up.

So again I ask: How would Copan, or any other theologian, propose to “explore” the question of God? How would he propose to “explore” the question of whether the beginning of the universe (if indeed there was a beginning) was created by God? How would he propose to “explore” the question of whether the universe was fine-tuned by God for life to come into being? (And if he did, why did he do such a piss-poor job of it?)

Does he have any definition of “exploring” the question of God’s existence other than reading other theologians, and talking to other theologians, and sitting around his living room thinking about it?

Other pieces on this topic:
Blind Men and Elephants: Religion, Science, and Understanding Big Complicated Things
“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

The "Exploration" of God, or, How Do You Solve A Problem Like Religion?